Đàm Trung Pháp



Quang Dũng (1921 1988) penned the ballad “Tây Tiến” (Westward March) in 1948, a year after his Capital Regiment (Trung Đoàn Thủ Đô) left Hà Nội. This regiment first saw action in late 1946, when 8,000 intellectual youths of the capital city defense faced 4,500 French troops. The battle was the first effort by these young people to prevent the return of the French colonialists. Quang Dũng was the pen name of Bùi Đình Diệm, who was born in Phùng village, Phượng Trì district, Sơn Tây province. His father was a literary man and a canton chief. Quang Dũng was the oldest child and had four sisters and one brother. He attended Bưởi High School and then the Normal School (Trường Sư Phạm) in Hà Nội. He graduated from the teacher-preparation institution, but he gave up his teaching career to become the chief of Yên Bái railroad station. At this time he joined the People’s Party (Quốc Dân Đảng).

Quang Dũng’s famed ballad was cherished by his fellow soldiers and widely circulated. However, it was not published until 1986 in Hà Nội – two years before his death. “Tây Tiến” is a matchless ballad about the Vietnamese people’s valorous resistance against French colonialism. It recalls the daunting expedition of the Westward march soldiers. Each recollection of the expedition is a salient painting and a stirring song about an unforgettable martial experience.

Through such vicarious experiences involving strong emotions and harrowing adversity, readers can catch a glimpse of the perilous selfless life led by the brave soldiers of the Westward March. Among poems on resistance written by different individuals between 1945 and 1954, “Tây Tiến” stands out, head and shoulders above the rest. It does not mention leaders, it does not touch on patriotism, yet every verse in it is imbued with an ardent love for the country, nature, friendship, and a determination to go to war to stamp out French colonialism.

An English translation of the ballad, alongside its original in Vietnamese, appears below:

Way behind us is the Mã River [1], Westward March troops Sông Mã xa rồi, Tây Tiến ơi

Yet thinking of jungles and mountains is still a staggering nostalgia – Nhớ về rừng núi, nhớ chơi vơi

In Sài Khao [2] fog concealed the worn-out soldiers – Sài Khao sương lấp đoàn quân mỏi

In Mường Lát [3] on a steamy night the flowers returned – Mường Lát hoa về trong đêm hơi

The upward slope was dauntingly tortuous – Dốc lên khúc khuỷu dốc thăm thẳm

Among desolate banks of cloud, gun muzzles sniffed the sky – Heo hút cồn mây, súng ngửi trời

A thousand meters ascending, another thousand descending Ngàn thước lên cao, ngàn thước xuống

Someone’s house in rainy Pha Luông [4] far away – Nhà ai Pha Luông mưa xa khơi

A weather-beaten companion stopped marching – Anh bạn dãi dầu không bước nữa

Slumping on his helmet and gun, he left life behind – Gục lên súng mũ bỏ quên đời

In the evening thundered majestic waterfalls – Chiều chiều oai linh thác gầm thét

At night in Mường Hịch tigers teased people [5]Đêm đêm Mường Hịch cọp trêu người

Oh Westward March, with the scent of steaming rice – Nhớ ôi Tây Tiến cơm lên khói

Her season of fragrant glutinous rice in Mai Châu [6]Mai Châu mùa em thơm nếp xôi

The barrack brightened up for a bridal gala – Doanh trại bừng lên hội đuốc hoa

Lo and behold, she was already dressed up – Kìa em xiêm áo tự bao giờ

Coy she was as the pan pipe [7] played a Man tune – Khèn lên Man điệu nàng e ấp

Toward Vientiane [8] the music inspired poetry – Nhạc về Viên Chăn xây hồn thơ

Those of you who left for Châu Mộc [9] that misty evening – Người đi Châu Mộc chiều sương ấy

Did you notice the spirit of reeds along river banks – Có thấy hồn lau nẻo bến bờ

The allure of lasses in dugouts – Có nhớ dáng người trên độc mộc

Floating on swift-flowing water like flowers [10] Trôi dòng nước lũ hoa đong đưa

Westward March troops went bald [11]Tây Tiến đoàn binh không mọc tóc

Pale like leaves yet we stayed fierce like tigers – Quân xanh màu lá dữ oai hùm

With wide-open eyes we sent reveries across the border [12] Mắt trừng gửi mộng qua biên giới

At night we dreamt of Hanoi and its charming beauties [13]Đêm mơ Hà Nội dáng kiều thơm

Scattered along the frontier were graves away from home – Rải rác biên cương mồ viễn xứ

Of those who left for battlefields without regretting their youth – Chiến trường đi chẳng tiếc đời xanh

Shrouded in uniforms instead of reed mats, they returned to earth [14]Áo bào thay chiếu, anh về đất

The Mã River roared a solo-journey dirge – Sông Mã gầm lên khúc độc hành

Westward March soldiers left without promises – Tây Tiến người đi không hẹn ước

Their remote expedition meant in itself a separation – Đường lên thăm thẳm một chia phôi

Those who joined Westward March that spring – Ai lên Tây Tiến mùa xuân ấy

Had their minds set for Sam Nua, not the plains [15] Hồn về Sầm Nứa chẳng về xuôi


[1] The Mã River starts in Northwestern Vietnam, winding from Điện Biên through Sơn La, Laos, and Thanh Hóa before joining the sea at the Gulf of Tonkin.

[2] and [3] Mường Lát town and Sài Khao village are in Thanh Hóa province. The town and the village are separated by steep slopes and tricky trails. The area is also notoriously foggy. In such poor visibility at night, the troops had to use torches, making them look like “flowers.”

[4] Pha Luông mountain is in Thanh Hóa province. It was on this mountain that many worn-out Tây Tiến troops simply “slumped on their helmets and guns, leaving life behind.”

[5] and [6] Mường Hịch village is a short distance from Mai Châu town in Hòa Bình province. Mường Hịch was known for its daring tigers which brazenly stole pigs for food.

[7] The pan pipe (khèn) is a wind instrument consisting of bamboo tubes connected to a wooden sound box. It is very popular with such ethnic groups in Vietnam as the Thai, the Man, and the Hmong.

[8] Vientiane (Vạn Tượng) is the capital city of Laos. It is in the central part of the country, on the Mekong River.

[9] Châu Mộc is a beautiful town in Sơn La province. In this ethnically diverse place, festivals are organized every spring for boys and girls to meet.

[10] Girls in dugouts often helped troops get across the river. Maneuvering their dugouts on swift-flowing water, the lasses looked like floating flowers.

[11] A scourge for the troops, malaria was caused by anopheles mosquitoes that infested their area of operations. The disease made their hair fall and their skin turn pale.

[12] and [13] This elegant couplet became an albatross around the poet’s neck. His detractors charged that the verses were too embarrassingly sentimental and thus could adversely affect the troops’ morale.

[14] The dead soldiers’ burials were worse than those for paupers, whose corpses would be shrouded in reed mats (chiếu) before interment.

[15] Sam Nua (also written as Xam Nua and Sam Nuea) is the major city of Huaphan province in Laos, adjacent to Vietnam’s Sơn La and Thanh Hóa provinces.

[ĐTP 2012]